When they see each other these days, Chip Kelly and Pat Kilkenny don’t spend much time talking football.
They talk about their dogs — Kelly and his wife, a former director of donor relations at Oregon, have two — or their mutual friends. When they played golf before the season, it didn’t matter that Kilkenny, the Oregon booster and former athletic director, was teeing off with the coach of UCLA.
“There were a lot of lies exchanged, a lot of laughter,” Kilkenny said. “We might even have had a beer or two.”
Six years after he left Oregon for the NFL, Kelly’s history with the Ducks is water under the Ferry Street Bridge. Both sides have moved on, yet there always seems to be some invisible force pulling them back together.
Kelly will return to Autzen Stadium on Saturday in a UCLA visor. Duck fans have known this day was coming from the moment he joined forces with a conference rival, and for the most part, they’ve made peace with the past.
Still, I suspect there will be a voice in the back of many minds wondering whether this homecoming could have happened another way, with Chip running out of the home team’s tunnel instead of the visitor’s.
“Oh, it could have happened,” Kilkenny said. “Everything in life is timing. For one reason or another, our timing never did reconcile with his timing.”
Since parting ways, both Oregon and Kelly have struggled to recreate the magic they had together. The Ducks are on their third coach post-Chip. Kelly is on his third job post-Oregon. Remembering how good they were together, it’s natural to look back and wonder if they could have arranged a reunion somehow.
Kelly was on his way to being fired by the 49ers when things went south for Mark Helfrich at Oregon. The hot rumor had Chip stepping down in San Francisco and coming back to reclaim his old job. Later we learned Helfrich had called Kelly to give his blessing, hoping Chip’s return would keep Oregon’s long-tenured staff together.
Ultimately, it didn’t happen. Kelly fought to the bitter end of a 2-14 season with the 49ers. Oregon hired Willie Taggart, and the window for a reunion slammed shut.
“One thing about Chip from a character perspective: If somebody else has a job, he’s not going to talk to you about that job because you have a coach,” Kilkenny said. “A lot of people don’t necessarily adhere to those kinds of standards, but he does. Our ability to engage him really wasn’t there too much.”
It’s impossible to say where the Ducks would be right now if Kelly had returned, but his record since leaving Oregon affirms he’s not a miracle worker. Including a 2-6 start at UCLA, his teams have lost 25 of their last 31 games, a stunning turn of events for those who watched his Oregon run up close.
What Kelly accomplished at Oregon — going 46-7 and 33-3 in the Pac-12, appearing in two Rose Bowls and a national championship game — may never be duplicated. For those who shared the experience, it was the kind of magical run you hope to experience once if you’re lucky.
John Neal, Oregon’s longtime secondary coach, described it almost like a religious revival that swept Eugene sometime around 2007.
“There was nobody who wasn’t a total Chip Kelly-Oregon football believer,” said Neal, now an analyst at UAB. “My only regret is that when he left, it was never the same. We couldn’t get it back.
“They tried to simulate it, but there’s no simulating true believers.”
Neal first saw Kelly hunched over a computer in the office of Oregon offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, while visiting the Ducks' staff, cutting up video of plays Kelly ran as the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire. Later the two would cross paths on recruiting trips in California, and Neal began recruiting Kelly as hard as he recruited the players he was there to see.
The recruiting paid off when Mike Bellotti convinced Kelly to become his offensive coordinator after Crowton left for LSU in 2007. The Ducks were reeling at the time, coming off an embarrassing loss to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. It was Kelly who walked into a meeting at Camp Harlow with a simple suggestion.
Guys, what if we just focus on winning the day?
“I said, ‘That’s it, man, that’s everything,’” Neal recalled. “Win the Day is everything. It was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.”
Of course, it was all too good to last. After the touchdowns and the thrills came the NFL rumors and the NCAA sanctions, and just like that it was over.
The Ducks tried to carry on without Kelly, and for a while they succeeded. But as more and more of the true believers drifted away, it became harder to keep the illusion going.
“When it changed, we lost it all,” Neal said. “Guys came into the program and they weren’t part of it, they didn’t believe, they didn’t know. That’s what ultimately ended up getting us fired.”
Oregon made a clean break from the Kelly era after firing Helfrich and his staff. Taggart brought an immediate burst of energy but skipped town before anyone could see the results. Now the job belongs to Mario Cristobal, whose first season has been equal parts encouraging and disappointing.
Enough time has passed that Cristobal won’t be judged by Kelly’s unattainable standard. Oregon still has cachet, Kilkenny said, and it’s not unreasonable to think the Ducks could work their way back to the top. But the further they get from that pinnacle, the steeper the climb appears.
“We’ve got to be careful, because it’s pretty darn fragile and it’s been a while since we’ve been that elite program,” Kilkenny said. “I hope it happens again. If nothing else, in my opinion, Phil Knight and others that invested in this program over the years deserve another crack at it.”
It’s fun to fantasize about what could have been with Chip and Oregon Part II, but I think both sides did the right thing by moving on. Oregon spent long enough trying to recreate what it had before. The Ducks are on a different path now, one that happens to intersect with Kelly’s once every year or two.
“If somehow, someway all those stars lined up, there would have been a real possibility he could have come back,” Kilkenny said. “Whether it would have happened or not, I guess we’ll never know.”
Sometimes not knowing is better than finding out.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.